James TURRELL, Shanta II (blue) Enlarge 1 /1


United States of America born 1943

Shanta II (blue) 1970 Description: Cross corner construction

Collection Title: Vertical vintage
Materials & Technique: sculptures, installation, fluorescent light, built space

Dimensions: dimensions variable 106.6 h
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2014
Accession No: NGA 2014.2119

When we experience a work created by James Turrell, many of our assumptions about art do not apply. The artist harnesses various technologies that rely on visual perception rather than traditional techniques of sculpture, and his art has no narrative. Because the elements also have industrial or everyday uses, the works might appear neutral or manufactured, while the artist seems to remain at arm’s length from their making. So why do we react to his installations with such intensity?

The illusion of the Gallery’s recently acquired Shanta II (blue) is a three-dimensional geometrical figure that floats in the corner of an empty room. On approaching the cuboid (the shape is also known as a rectangular parallelepiped), we see the space around it has been constructed to produce the effect of a solid rectangle made of blue fluorescence. As we cross to the other side, the figure morphs into a cube. Everything is cool: white walls, plain geometry, blue light. Yet these simple means have a disproportionate effect, concentrating our attention on the contradiction of an imaginary solid consisting of an immaterial substance.

Viewers require more time than usual when encountering Turrell’s sculptures, as the lightworks are seen immediately but apprehended gradually. Each is approached individually, with little or no knowledge of how it is constructed. Perhaps there is less conversation among the audience, too, as the dim space encourages silence. Even the colour is pure but without any strong associations, as it is neither sky blue nor royal blue, but rather a hue used in advertising or photography. Other versions of Shanta employ pink or white light, which have very different results.

Even when we realise the blue is an aperture where two walls meet, this knowledge does not destroy the illusion. As all outside distractions have been stripped away, we confront the work of art in a singular manner. This may be the reason most people understand Turrell’s art in an experiential way, spread over time, and do not reject it as abstract or meaningless. Mediation between the viewer, the works and the natural world is through the eye, body and mind, allowing a new sphere in which artificial light, a museum, mathematics and physics coincide in the most normal way possible.

Even if we do not comprehend how the illusion of Shanta II (blue) is produced, we still comprehend a pure image consisting of light, colour and time. Originally created more than four decades ago, the installation points to Turrell’s increasing sophistication of presentation, the way he works through ideas and variants that pinpoint how effects are made and his larger project about perception.

Most of all, perhaps, the works seem to be humble as well as rarefied. Avoiding decoration, with few associations and little or no physical presence, Turrell’s lightworks persuade us to keep looking. Our minds retain an afterimage, seemingly perfect or even meant to be, opening our senses to another dimension of art.

Christine Dixon, Senior Curator of International Painting and Sculpture

in artonview, issue 81, Autumn 2015